“The story can be summed up in a few sentences. In 1000 A.D., few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon afterward they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity—albeit a costly and a rare one—in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet.” (Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books. Page 5)
Cultural anthropologist Sidney Mintz, prominent for linking English’s insatiable sweet tooth with the transformation of Britain from a hierarchical society to a democratic industrial society, succinctly summarizes the multi-century narrative of sugar in less than one hundred words. The introduction of sugar in the mid-17th century and the subsequent craving for sweetness catalyzed radical cultural and commercial changes within British society which evolved over the course of two hundred years an ultimately shaped British culture into its modern day social order.
Although prior to the mid 17th century, sugar, limited by supply and expense, was primarily used as a spice, a medicinal supplement, and for both decorative and preservative purposes, sugar’s use as a sweetener ultimately prevailed. In 1662, Queen Catherine, King Charles II’s Portuguese wife, introduced drinking tea, a habit of the Portuguese nobility, to the British courts. An easily adulterated and ingestible beverage, the upper echelons of society quickly adopted the daily ritual of tea and soon began to add the newly available sweetener to the otherwise bitter beverage. (Mintz, 110) Tea quickly become symbolic of the wealthier and sugar embodied a social status of wealth and power.
Like most trends associated with the elite, aspirational lower-classes began to imitate tea-drinking. For the wealthy, tea became emblematic of social events and sugar a novel treat, a sumptuous additive served in their tea and desserts, For the middle and lower classes, however, sweetened tea presented itself as the first “work break.” Taken mid-afternoon, tea and sugar served as a relief from labor. Soon, “the tea,” became an event accompanied by a light lunch, to sate the lower classes’ hunger after working a full morning. The lower classes’ adoption and adaptation of the upper-class tradition of tea, not only caused an adjustment of their entire meal pattern, but also introduced sugar into their greater diet. (Mintz, 142) This introduction of sugar to the British occurred at a most opportune time. When sugar first began to gain recognition, English people of all social strata, regularly susceptible to famine, struggled to maintain a satisfying diet. Centered predominately around a single starch and supplemented by various other foods, the English people’s diet relied almost exclusively on the availability of wheat, and did not contain robust nutritional value. For the lower classes, particularly, sugar offered an easy method of meeting daily caloric needs. (Mintz, 133)
As the lower classes began to develop a preference for sugar through sweetened tea, a marked increase in sugar production in the mid-seventeenth century resulted in a 70% reduction in the prices of sugar. Consequently, cheap sugar became readily available to even the poorest within Britain. Perhaps the most crucial supplement to the working class diet, cheap sugar redefined the lower-class diet. Sweet pastries, porridges, and treacle—a type of spreadable molasses—became dietary staples for the poor and provided a large allocation of their daily carbohydrates, and thus calories.
“The English people came to view sugar as essential; supplying them with it became as much a political as an economic obligation.” (Mintz, 157)
As a consequence of Britain’s cross-class taste for sugar, the market for the product burgeoned, critically driving changes in Britain’s social structure. Demand for sugar consistently pushed the limits of supply. Economic and political forces “supported the seizure of colonies where cane could be grown and raw sugar manufactured, as well as the slave trade that supplied the needed labor.” (Mintz, 167) Thus, investment opportunities in slave trade, shipping, plantations, credit against which plantations and stocks of slaves and sugar could be collateral, and retailing and refining proliferated. (Mintz, 168) By the mid-17th century, the sugar trade was a critical factor in cementing the power and the wealth of the British empire. Further, because the nascent sugar industry in England did not exclusively reward the rich—it provided opportunity to anyone ready to bear the risk, the craving for sugar quite literally fostered democracy, as it transformed England from a status based medieval society to a capitalist and industrial society. (Mintz, 186).
“Britain’s annual per capita consumption of sugar was 4lbs in 1704, 18lbs in 1800, 90lbs in 1901 – a 22-fold increase to the point where Britons had the highest sugar intake in Europe” (The Guardian)
“…there is no doubt that the quantities imported and retained during that two century period when sucrose changed from rarity to daily ingestible rose steadily; that the increase was comparatively larger than the population increase; and that by the mid-nineteenth century the British were eating more sugar than ever before, and were as sugar-hungry as ever.” (Mintz, 161)
Sugar, a now ubiquitous additive, changed the fortunes of many in Britain over a two hundred plus year span. Culturally, at its nascent usage beginning in the 17th century its association with tea begot a new category of meal for the working class; it supplemented a precariously unstable dietary situation; and ultimately, it provided a not inconsequential catalyst to the development of the British economy via the colonial growth and trading required to sate the country’s desire for sugar. The craving for sugar also fostered an emerging democracy in Britain, and helped lift British society from a social structure grounded in medieval hierarchies to a capitalist and industrial society. (Mintz, 186) Predicated on a deep gluttony for sugar and the capitalistic requirements to provide product, British social norms also changed as the country moved away from a cultural, feudalistic, structure which prevented opportunities for economic mobility to one driven by capitalism, and ultimately meritocracy and democracy. Sugar, in British history, represents more than an innovation in nourishment. The proliferation of sugar as a core food item characterizes the development of the British economy via colonial growth and trading, and the growing power and changing societal norms of the British empire.
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